By Deborah Goonan
Add Florida to the list of states where there seems to be an ongoing battle between homeowners – who want to save water and reduce the need for chemical treatment of lawns – and their homeowners’ associations. While there are some HOA communities that have embraced the idea of Florida Friendly landscapes, many are still led by Boards that insist that anything other than lush green, weed-free grass and thirsty ornamental trees and shrubs is unsightly and unacceptable.
Florida is a tough climate for gardeners and landscapers. Heat and humidity take their toll on lawns and non-native plants. Central and Northern portions of the state are known to experience a few killing frosts in the winter months, and that has been known to kill tropical plants that thrive in hot summer weather. Some portions of the state get a lot more rain than others. Coastal areas have to contend with salt spray and windy conditions. Soils are either bone dry sand or saturated clay or loam. And there are many microclimates depending on proximity of lakes, salt marshes, pine forests, intercostal waterways, bays, or, of course, the ocean.
I owned a home in central Florida for several years with St. Augustine grass, palm trees, magnolia trees and various small ornamental and flowering shrubs. The lot was under a quarter acre, and we had a pool. But it cost nearly $150 per month for lawn, tree, and shrub care (including mowing and trimming). This was over and above HOA fees. I was in a constant battle with cinch bugs, grubs, caterpillars, molds and fungi, ticks, fire ants, and other pests and diseases that simply do not exist in my former home state of Pennsylvania.
We had an irrigation system connected to a well on our property, but I know lots of people in Florida that irrigate their yards with water from their local utility provider. That certainly adds to their water bill, and water utility rates in the state have climbed substantially in recent years.
So I can certainly see why homeowners would want to save time and money in yard maintenance, while also reducing their impact on the environment. The University of Florida has published detailed guidelines for homeowners who want to adopt Florida Friendly landscape practices. The state passed a law in 2009 prohibiting HOAs from denying a homeowner the right to transition to a Florida Friendly landscape.
But that doesn’t seem to matter, because, according to Barbara Billiot Stage, an attorney representing FL homeowners in disputes with their HOAs, many Board members are unfamiliar with the law, or believe it doesn’t apply. The statute itself does not clearly define what constitutes Florida Friendly landscape design, so it becomes a matter of interpretation. The homeowner says, “Bahia grass is Florida Friendly” and the HOA says “so is St. Augustine grass,” and refuses to allow the owner to transition to Bahia, which survives with far less water. Some of these matters wind up in court, as in this prime example featured by CCFJ, Florida’s state advocacy group for HOA homeowners:
Standing up for Florida-friendly lawns not easy when HOA says no
(Alex Harris, Tampa Bay Times, Aug 8 2015)
And of course, it seems many of these cases involve vulnerable residents, in this case a couple in their seventies, one of whom has Parkinson’s disease, and the other suffering from terminal cancer. They have spent the last SIX YEARS attempting to settle their dispute. This can’t be good publicity for Sable Ridge HOA in Land O’ Lakes. And the six-year lawsuit must be costing the Association a small fortune, with all homeowners picking up the tab. And for what purpose? To enforce a lush, green appearance at the cost of personal and public health, putting ever more stress on the water supply and Florida’s fragile ecosystem.
I just don’t get it.